Header image for news printout

Committee on the Rights of the Child considers report of the United Kingdom on the sale of children and child prostitution

30 May 2014

The Committee on the Rights of the Child this morning considered the initial report of the United Kingdom on how the country implements the provisions of the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography.

John O’Brian, Director of the Safe-Guarding and Public Protection Unit, Home Office, said child sexual abuse was an abhorrent crime and the United Kingdom Government was determined to tackle it in whatever form it took. To stamp out the scourge of modern slavery the United Kingdom had drafted a Modern Slavery Bill, the first of its kind in Europe, which would crucially enhance protection for child victims. A new Victim’s Code had been published to better support victims in the Criminal Justice System. The National Group to Tackle Sexual Violence against Children and Vulnerable People had had several practical achievements in helping prevent vulnerable people becoming victims in the first place. Efforts to tackle online child abuse included work with stakeholders including Google and Microsoft and a joint taskforce set up with the United States.

During the interactive dialogue Committee Experts commended the United Kingdom for the major steps it had taken towards implementing the Optional Protocol, but expressed concerns about various issues including legislative provisions, definitions of a child and of key terms in law and how the Protocol could be applied to Crown Dependences and British Overseas Territories. The use of Bed and Breakfast accommodation for some unaccompanied children, including victims of trafficking, was raised as a concern, as was the possibility for re-victimization of children made to testify in court and the levels of support given to victims in general during the legal process. Actions to prevent trafficking, including training of border officials, was also raised.

Wanderlino Nogueira Neto, Committee Member acting as Country Co-Rapporteur, in concluding remarks, thanked the delegation for the constructive and informative dialogue and for its patience in replying to points the Committee required further clarification on.

In concluding remarks, Mr. O’Brian recalled key initiatives, including the draft Modern Slavery Bill, and said the United Kingdom Government was determined to do all it could to help and support victims, to prosecute offenders and most of all prevent vulnerable people, particularly children, from becoming victims in the first place.

The delegation of the United Kingdom included representatives from the Home Office and from the Permanent Mission of the United Kingdom to the United Nations Office at Geneva.

The Committee will meet in private this afternoon. Its next public meeting will take place at 3 p.m. on Monday, 2 June when it will consider the combined third to fourth periodic report of India (CRC/C/IND/3-4).

Report

The Committee reviewed the initial report of the United Kingdom under the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography: CRC/C/OPSC/GBR/1.

Presentation of the Report

JOHN O’BRIAN, Director of Safe-Guarding and Public Protection Unit, Home Office, said the implementation of the Optional Protocol on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography was an area of utmost priority for the Government of the United Kingdom. The report included responses from Government departments covering England and Wales, alongside data from the devolved administrations including Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and where appropriate, the Crown Dependencies and the British Overseas Territories. At the outset Mr. O’Brian noted that the Optional Protocol did not extend to the British Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies, although several responses from those territories to the Committee’s written questions had been submitted. The United Kingdom would not be in a position to respond to the Committee’s oral questions regarding those territories but would be happy to submit any further details by writing following the review.

Child sexual abuse was an abhorrent crime and the United Kingdom Government was determined to tackle it in whatever form it took. Child sexual abuse was not exclusive to any single culture, community, race or religion. It happened in all areas and could take many different forms. It was never acceptable; people needed to work together to ensure those sickening crimes no longer remained hidden. The United Kingdom Government was clear that children who were sexually exploited, whether for commercial or other reasons, should not be referred to as child prostitutes. They should be recognized as victims, and the terminology should reaffirm the crucial message that children could not consent to their own abuse. To stamp out the scourge of modern slavery the United Kingdom had drafted a Modern Slavery Bill, the first of its kind in Europe, which would crucially enhance protection for child victims. A major review into the identification of victims of trafficking and slavery was also being undertaken, to make the current National Referral Mechanism more effective. There had also been improvements to the Criminal Justice System to better respond to the needs of victims, such as the recently published Victim’s Code.

The United Kingdom was determined to all it could to support victims and prosecute offenders, but most importantly wanted to prevent vulnerable people becoming victims in the first place. The Home Office led the National Group to tackle Sexual Violence Against Children and Vulnerable People, which regularly reported to the Prime Minister and brought together a wide range of Government departments and key partners, including the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, Barnardo’s and Rape Crisis, three leading national non-governmental organizations in that area. Its key achievements to date included issuing new guidance to police and prosecutors to focus on the nature of the allegation, not the credibility of the victim, and improving support to victims of sexual abuse in the court process, such as the use of pre-recorded cross examination of evidence.

Mr. O’Brian spoke about efforts to tackle online child abuse which was sometimes referred to as child pornography, also a term the United Kingdom did not agree with. Efforts were led by the Minister for Policing, Criminal Justice and Victims in conjunction with a range of partners including Google and Microsoft. A joint taskforce had been set up with the United States to utilize the technical expertise of the digital industry to tackle the sharing of illegal images and the sexual exploitation of children online. The Child Exploitation and Online Protection Command, within the new National Crime Agency, was an integral body with a leading role in developing educational tools to help children avoid becoming the victims of sexual abuse, such as the ‘Think U Know’ website which had been viewed 16 million times since its launch.

Questions by the Committee Experts

RENATE WINTER, Committee Member acting as Country Rapporteur for the report of the United Kingdom, congratulated the State party on ratifying the Optional Protocol and submitting its first report, which was always the most difficult. The Committee understood that differences in legislation between England and Wales, and Scotland and Northern Ireland, for example, caused some challenges. It made it difficult for the Committee – and undoubtedly the State party also – to find nationwide solutions. The same problem applied to the Crown Dependencies and British Overseas Territories, as it was difficult for the Committee to understand why the Protocol had not been extended to those territories, and which governing body would be able to do so. The Committee would not ask questions about the British Overseas Territories today, as the delegation had said it was either unable or unwilling to answer them, but hoped they could be discussed at the next review.

The United Kingdom was commended for the various measures it had taken which represented major steps forward in the implementation of the Optional Protocol, and thanked for its answers to the written questions. The Expert asked whether it was possible to implement a broad data-collection mechanism, as well as analysis, monitoring and appraisal of the impact assessment of all areas covered by the Optional Protocol, not only trafficking in children. He also asked how children were being empowered to defend their sexual rights themselves, and how awareness of the Optional Protocol was promoted among key stakeholders, in schools and in the State party in general; were there any awareness-raising campaigns?

Legal procedures, especially with regard to the rights of and support for victims, were raised by another Expert who referred to a recent court case regarding a 16 year old girl who had been gang-raped by eight boys. In court, for over a week the girl victim was bombarded by questions by more than eight lawyers and barristers, until she eventually broke down. Unfortunately that was not the only such case reported. How and why was it possible that the judge in that case allowed such a thing to happen, an Expert asked. How was the re-traumatization of children in court prevented?

The Expert also asked about the lifting of the anonymity of a victim, retroactively after their eighteenth birthday, which sometimes came up in regard to media reporting, and how that applied to the rights of victims?

Many unaccompanied children, including some victims of trafficking, were put into Bed and Breakfast accommodation which made them immediately vulnerable to all sorts of exploitation, including by individuals who somehow were reported to have obtained information on their past. The Bed and Breakfasts were not controlled, not supervised and there was no guarantee of assistance being given to the individual concerned. Could a ban on placing vulnerable children in Bed and Breakfast accommodation be envisioned?

There was child-specific legislation regarding trafficking, but it only covered children up to 16 years of age, an Expert said, asking what legal guarantees there were to cover all children up to 18 years of age. There was a blossoming in trafficking of children from Africa and the Caribbean into England, and especially into London, she said, asking what training was given to immigration officials at ports and border crossings into the country to detect potential trafficking victims at the point of entry. Was any training given on organ trafficking and forced labour as well, including to health workers and the police? Was there a code of conduct for all professionals on how to deal with child victims, especially on avoiding discrimination of non-European Union children?

Did the United Kingdom consider the application of Article 4 of the Protocol as a basis for extradition in the event of a crime, in the absence of an extradition treaty, an Expert asked. The State party had several restrictions on extradition, including that both parties had to have ratified the instrument allowing the extradition. For example Scotland prohibited extradition unless the person concerned was a United Kingdom national, and not if the victim had been victimized outside of Scotland. Was it possible that the laws might be unified through the State party?

An Expert noted that the United Kingdom delegation did not agree with the term ‘child pornography’ and instead used the term ‘child abuse images’. The latter term was itself very wide and could be vague, in the sense that it did not only reflect child pornography but could reflect many other cases of child abuse. Could the delegation please comment?

What was the State party’s definition of a child when it came to the crimes covered by the Optional Protocol, an Expert asked. Were all children up to 18 years of age protected by the criminal laws of the United Kingdom? The Protocol dealt with the sale of children, but did the United Kingdom have the same definition of it? For example, was forced labour considered the sale of children? Trafficking and the sale of children were two different things that needed to be dealt with separately in law.

The Committee had been informed that victims were not entitled to psychological support until the investigation into their abuse had been completed, as it was perceived their access to psychological and recovery support could interfere with the investigation, an Expert said, which was unacceptable especially if a legal case was long-running.

How many people had been prosecuted under the Sexual Offenders Act and how many people had been sentenced, an Expert asked. Was there a Witness Protection Scheme for children? Was there any comprehensive programme to prevent children becoming victims of sexual exploitation and abuse? And could the delegation speak about efforts to tackle sex tourism?

Response by the Delegation

Answering the questions posed by Committee Members, a delegate said the concept of “sale” in the Optional Protocol was broader than that of trafficking, partly to ensure cross-border movement did not involve exploitation of children. In general the United Kingdom felt that although its legislation did not specifically refer to sale, which was not generally a well-understood concept by law enforcement and prosecution authorities, it gave more than sufficient protection. Slavery was a criminal offence, defined as ‘the act of exercising a right of ownership’, and such case law was applicable domestically. The draft Modern Slavery Bill would pull all of those offences together into a single, clear, legislative framework, the delegate emphasized. Another relevant piece of legislation was the Adoption Act which held that only a legitimate adoption agency could provide a child to prospective adoptive parents, thus preventing illegal adoption and criminalizing the sale of a child outside its parameters. Forced marriage had been included in an act of parliament which would soon be enforced, but there were no plans to bring that offence within the Modern Slavery Bill, she added.

Legislation to tackle trafficking included the Sexual Offences Act, which was very broad and did cover children up to the age of 18 years. There were certain items that were applicable to people under the age of 13, and 16, in accordance with the Law on Consent, but sexual exploitation was absolutely criminalized. The Sexual Offences Act not only dealt with sexual exploitation, but any sexual activity in general, and so had to differentiate between consensual sexual activities between two 17 year olds, for example, and sexual activities for exploitative purposes, the delegate explained.

Training was provided to front-line staff on slavery offences including awareness-raising training for professionals including police, border officials, prosecutors, labour inspectors and social workers, a delegate confirmed, although the Government recognized that more needed to be done in that regard. The draft Modern Slavery Bill included a proposal to appoint an Anti-Slavery Commissioner, who would for the first time be a first senior figure serving as a spearhead for all anti-modern slavery efforts. The Commissioner would be fully independent and would report to the Home Secretary and to Parliament.

There would not be a separate offence regarding children within the draft Modern Slavery Bill, a delegate clarified, because the Government did not want the courts to get caught up with issues of age, for example whether someone was 17 or 18. It would, however, recognize that children were particularly vulnerable and had particular needs.

The draft bill included a provision that allowed for the Secretary of State to appoint Child Trafficking Advocates to child victims of trafficking, a delegate said. The Advocate would be a dedicated specialist worker with a legal status who could support children through the criminal justice system, the local authority services and the immigration agencies, providing the child with the voice and the support they needed in their interests. A pilot scheme was currently in place to determine exactly how the Advocate role would work. There was no prohibition to provide therapy to victims of sexual exploitation while a case was still ongoing, a delegate confirmed.

The provision of a Child Trafficking Advocate would not be extended to all unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, as they were not all necessarily involved in any kind of sale, prostitution or pornography, she clarified. The United Kingdom had a comprehensive child protection arrangement, and all unaccompanied children were allocated a social worker who assessed their needs and drew up a care plan for them.

In terms of awareness-raising in schools, a delegate said that the new personal, social, health and economic educational curriculum tackled the issues in several different ways, and the latest revision would for the first time include information on the safe-use of computing, which was a risk factor for the sale of children.

A delegate explained the provisions and conditions of the 2003 Extradition Act, adding that trafficking in persons offences were contained in the Sexual Offences Act and in the Immigration Act, so United Kingdom nationals who committed trafficking offences anywhere in the world could be prosecuted in the United Kingdom. Non United Kingdom nationals charged with an offence on a United Kingdom territory could also be convicted by the authorities.

The National Referral Mechanism was a United Kingdom framework for identifying victims of trafficking which helped build up a picture of the situation, and took annual strategic threat assessments to gain a sense of the scale and prevalence of those horrendous forms of child abuse. Data was collected from local authorities who held important information on at-risk children and regularly shared key indicators – such as details of children who had gone missing from care – with the police. A Committee Member had quoted a statistic that 23 per cent of children in care were victims of child sexual abuse; while that was not a figure known to the Home Office, it was known that in 2013 62 per cent of children in care had been victim of some form of abuse or neglect.

It was difficult, because of the multi-agency response, for the Government to provide details of the resources devoted to the implementation of the Optional Protocol, a delegate said. He did however give a flavour of the sums given to Central Government body; the National Crime Agency budget this year was £400 million, and that Agency contained the dedicated Child Exploitation Online Protection Centre command, which dealt with the sexual exploitation of children and prosecuted those offences. The annual Police budget was £8.5 billion, and there was a further budget of approximately £5 million for the Witness Protection Fund. Details of the funding for the Office of the Children’s Commissioner would be provided in writing afterwards.

Regarding the extension of the Optional Protocol to the British Overseas Territories, a delegate explained that the longstanding policy was to encourage overseas territory governments to request the extension of United Nations human rights treaties ratified by the United Kingdom Government, but only when the relevant territory was able to implement them. Most territories were small islands or small island groups which had limited capacity or resources to implement international treaties. Each had substantial developed responsibilities, including for local laws. The responsibility for protecting human rights rested primarily with the local authorities although the United Kingdom Government expected them to abide by the same human rights standards as the United Kingdom.

A delegate spoke about training for border officials to more effectively identify child victims or potential victims of trafficking. Border officials had a critical role, as they were the first officials who encountered victims as they entered into the United Kingdom, but often only had a few minutes with victims in which to take action. The United Kingdom Human Trafficking Centre, together with the National Referral Mechanism, coordinated that work.

Concerning a code of conduct to avoid discrimination against non-European Union children, a delegate said there was statutory guidance, for example the Department of Education recently released new guidance for local authorities on the need to support children who had been trafficked or who were vulnerable to sexual exploitation. That guidance applied to children whether they came from European Union or non-European Union countries.

The delegation said it would respond to questions on the placement of vulnerable children in Bed and Breakfast accommodation, and on efforts to tackle sex tourism, in writing to the Committee after the review.

Follow-Up Questions

An Expert asked about international cooperation to combat international paedophile rings, and quoted a recent case which led to the arrest of 11 British paedophiles. In instances of trafficking for purposes other than sexual abuse, there were reports that children could be considered as perpetrators, not victims, an Expert said. He also asked about multiple reports of the re-victimization of children during court cases and prosecutions.

Pre-constituted proof was raised by another Expert who asked whether the initial statement made by a child who had just been found, or rescued, could be recorded on video and used as adequate proof in court, so that the child did not have to go through the trauma of testifying again before a judge, and thus re-victimized.

How was it possible that children who had been trafficked for the purposes of forced labour, such as cases where they had to work in a cannabis plant, could subsequently be prosecuted for illegal labour, an Expert asked. Another Expert asked for clarification on whether there were any provisions to ensure that a victim who had been trafficked would always be considered as a victim, and not as a perpetrator of another crime. It seemed there were guidelines but not legislation to protect from that risk?

Response by the Delegation

The term ‘child abuse images’ was the term used from a policy objective, and the legal definition was ‘indecent photograph of a child’ – the offence was broad enough to caption both those in possession of the images along with those who produced them, a delegate said, answering an earlier question.

The use of pre-recorded cross-examination for trials involving children was currently being trialled in three Crown Courts in England, a delegate replied, and the results of those pilot schemes would be published in due course.

In answer to the follow-up question on the possibility for a trafficked child forced to work in illegal activities to be regarded as an offender, a delegate agreed that it was not currently provided for in law, but said the Home Office was looking at ways to improve legislation which could potentially prosecute a child victim of forced labour, while at the same time keeping the laws strong enough to still be able to prosecute perpetrators of very serious crimes who could also be identified as victims.

Concluding Remarks

WANDERLINO NOGUEIRA NETO, Committee Member acting as Co-Country Rapporteur for the report of the United Kingdom, thanked the delegation for the constructive and informative dialogue and for its patience in replying to points the Committee required further clarification on, some areas of which still remained grey. He hoped the children of the United Kingdom knew that the Committee worked to safeguard their dignity and essential freedoms, and those of children the world over.

JOHN O’BRIAN, Director of Safe-Guarding and Public Protection Unit, Home Office, thanked the Committee and said he hoped the delegation had made clear through its answers that stamping out the terrible abuse covered by the Optional Protocol was a priority area for the United Kingdom. He recalled key initiatives including the draft Modern Slavery Bill which would give law enforcement officials the tools they needed. The United Kingdom Government was determined to do all it could to help and support victims, to prosecute offenders and most of all to prevent vulnerable people, particularly children, from becoming victims in the first place.

_________

For use of the information media; not an official record